Pubdate: Wed, 07 Oct 2015
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2015 The Denver Post Corp
Author: Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


The Inmate Release Is Part of a Big Change in Federal Drug Policy.

washington) The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 
inmates early from prison - the largest ever release of federal 
prisoners-to reduce crowding and provide relief to drug offenders who 
received harsh sentences in the past three decades.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the 
department's Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 andNov. 2. Most of 
them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put 
on supervised release.

The early release follows action by the U. S. Sentencing Commission - 
an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal 
crimes - which reduced the potential punishment for future drug 
offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.

The commission's action is separate from an effort by President 
Barack Obama to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, 
an initiative that has resulted in 89 inmates being released early.

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines 
eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation's approximately 
100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early 
release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is 
the first step in that process.

"The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional," 
said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory 
Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform. The 
sentencing commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates will 
be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

The releases are part of a shift in the nation's approach to criminal 
justice and drug sentencing. Along with the commission's action, the 
Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low- 
level, nonviolent drug offenderswho have no connection to gangs or 
largescale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe 
mandatory sentences.

The U. S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction 
last year after holding two public hearings in which they heard 
testimony from former Attorney General Eric Holder, federal judges, 
federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, 
and sentencing advocates. The panel received more than 80,000 public 
comment letters, with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing 
guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission 
then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge 
release of inmates.

The policy change is referred to as "Drugs Minus Two." Federal 
sentencing guidelines rely on a numeric system based on different 
factors, including the defendant's criminal history, the type of 
crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a 
leader in a drug group.

The sentencing panel's change decreased the value attached to most 
drug-trafficking offenses by two levels, regardless of the type of 
drug or the amount.

An average of about two years is being shaved off eligible prisoners' 
sentences under the change. Although some of the inmates who will be 
released have served decades, on average they will have served 8 1/2 
years instead of 10 1/2 , according to a Justice Department official.

"Even with the sentencing commission's reductions, drug offenders 
will have served substantial prison sentences," Deputy Attorney 
General Sally Yates said. "Moreover, these reductions are not 
automatic. Under the commission's directive, federal judges are 
required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to 
reduce an inmate's sentence."

In each case, inmates must petition a judge who decides whether to 
grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 
70 sentence reductions per week, Justice officials said. Some of the 
inmates already have been sent to halfway houses.

In some cases, federal judges have denied inmates' requests for early 
release. For example, U. S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth recently 
denied requests from two top associates of Rayful Edmond III, one of 
the District of Columbia's most notorious drug kingpins.

Federal prosecutors did not oppose a request by defense lawyers to 
have the associates, Melvin D. Butler and James Antonio Jones, 
released early inNovember. But last month Lamberth denied the 
request, which would have cut about two years from each man's 
projected 28 1/2 - year sentence.

"The court struggles to understand how the government could condone 
the release of Butler and Jones, each convicted of high-level, 
sophisticated and violent drug-trafficking offenses," Lamberth wrote. 
The Edmond group imported as much as 1,700 pounds of Colombian 
cocaine per month into the city in the 1980s, according to court papers.

Critics, including some federal prosecutors, judges and police 
officials, have raised concerns that allowing so many inmates to be 
released at the same time could cause crime to increase.

But Justice officials said that about one-third of the inmates who 
will be released in a few weeks are foreign citizens who will be 
deported quickly.

They also pointed to a study last year that found that the recidivism 
rate for offenders who were released early after changes in crack- 
cocaine sentencing guidelines in 2007 was not significantly different 
from offenders who completed their sentences.

"Prison officials and probation officers are working hard to ensure 
that returning offenders are adequately supervised and monitored," Yates said.

Federal prison costs represent about one-third of the Justice 
Department's $ 27 billion budget. The U. S. population has grown by 
about a third since 1980, but the federal prison population has 
increased by about 800 percent, and federal prisons are operating at 
nearly 40 percent over capacity, Justice officials said.

Virginia L. Grady, federal public defender for Colorado and Wyoming, 
said releasing the 6,000 offenders is a small step in the right direction.

It would take new laws to remedy a program stemming from onerous laws 
passed by Congress in the mid- 1980s, Grady said.

"Congress needs to rethink its approach to mandatory sentencing," Grady said.

She said the U. S. sentencing scheme for drug offenders is 
embarrassingly severe.

"It's a terrible way to govern people," Grady said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom